Civil asset forfeiture is coming under the spotlight again, this time by bloggers, journalists, and analysts, who met at a daylong conference to discuss the issue. Logan Albright, a Research Analyst at FreedomWorks who attended the conference, writes in an article for Watchdog.org:
Here’s how it works: If police or federal agents suspect that property has been involved in the commission of a crime, they can simply take it. No charges need be filed against the property owner, no trial must occur. In effect, the property itself is accused of a crime, and it’s up to the owner to prove its innocence if they ever wants to see it again.
US Attorneys seized $679 million in criminal assets and $3.9 billion in civil assets last year. The legal fees and lengthy bureaucratic process often means that assets taken are never recovered — even in the absence of a criminal charge or conviction. The obvious conflict of interest results in a perverse incentive for law enforcement to not only focus on crimes which have a higher chance of resulting in personal gain, but to contrive scenarios in which they seize assets where there may not have been any crime at all.
In one case last October, businessman Lyndon McLellan, who owns the L&M Convenience Mart in Fairmont, N.C., had his entire life savings confiscated by the IRS after they alleged he might be engaged in an obscure financial crime known as “structuring.”
McLellan had routinely been making deposits to his bank account just short of $10,000, which apparently aroused the suspicion of the IRS. Banks are required by law to report transactions over $10,000, and intentionally making deposits under that amount in order to avoid those reports is a crime known as “structuring.”
IRS enforcement agents used this suspicion to seize $107,000 from McLellan. After assistance from the Institute for Justice and pressure from a petition with over 12,000 signatures, McLellan fortunately received the money back on May 12.
Many others are not so lucky.
The Atlantic tells another recent story about Joseph Rivers, a 22-year-old from Romulus, Michigan, who boarded a train for Los Angeles with aspirations to produce music videos. Rivers said he’d been saving money for years in order to make the trip. In total, he carried $16,000.
Federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also boarded the train and began interrogating passengers. Rivers believed he had nothing to hide, and made the mistake of speaking to the agents and consenting to a search. The DEA agents found the $16,000 Rivers had saved and seized it. He has yet to get it back.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill in 2014 that ostensibly aims to increase the federal government’s burden of proof in civil forfeiture proceedings. The bill has since been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, but the reform is unlikely to be effective in solving the problem. While the federal government and its various agencies engage in asset forfeiture, individual police and state departments are raking in the cash as well.
Earlier this year, TruthVoice reported a case where it was revealed Missouri Police received $349,617 in civil asset forfeitures by taking advantage of a federal loophole called Equitable Sharing. Senator Rand’s bill does not appear to address this loophole.